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Fox Exec Charlie Collier Is Bringing the Network Back to Its Rebel Roots

Walk the hallways of Fox Entertainment’s headquarters at its Century City lot, and you’ll find posters touting the company’s new mission statements. One hypes Fox’s “brand pillars,” which include “big swings,” “mass appeal” and “visceral reactions.” Another reminds employees, “We don’t play by the rules, we change the game.”

Then there’s the slogan that perhaps best describes Fox’s recent transition into an independent entity: “We break things to make new things.” 

Welcome to the new Fox, same as the old Fox — except when it’s not. As he marks his first-year anniversary next month as the CEO of Fox Entertainment, Charlie Collier has leaned on the network’s legacy as an aggressive underdog that disrupted the broadcast business. But he’s using that as the foundation to reposition Fox as a nimble, independent programmer, one that’s no longer part of a huge media conglomerate.

“I think he is really smart,” says Gail Berman, who heads SideCar, an in-house production unit she launched with Fox earlier this year. “He has a great vision for the network, which seems to have been lacking for a while, and it feels like there’s a lot of energy in the building.”

The early results, a month into the new TV season, have been encouraging for Collier and his team, which includes entertainment president Michael Thorn and alternative entertainment president Rob Wade. Fox led all networks among adults 18-49 through the first three weeks of fall, for the first time in its history, ranking No. 1 on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (where it’s tied with CBS).

“We’re at the very beginning of our journey as an independent network,” says Thorn. “I would say so far, so good.”

The addition of “NFL Thursday Night Football” and “WWE Smackdown Live” on Fridays has helped fuel Fox, while returning shows “The Masked Singer” and “9-1-1” are also driving ratings. The drama “Prodigal Son” is the fall’s top-rated new show and has been picked up for the rest of the season, while freshman animated comedy “Bless the Harts” was just given a Season 2 renewal.

“We’re winning four of seven nights — two are sports, and two are entertainment — and this is what you hoped would happen,” Collier says. “A lot of people were questioning whether Fox would be in the entertainment business. One of the things I was excited about in coming to the job was the notion that broadcast still brings people together in a really meaningful way — through sports, through entertainment. When you pierce popular culture on a broadcast network, it affects the entire country.” 

The endlessly optimistic Collier cut his teeth in cable, working at Oxygen Media, A+E Networks and Court TV before building AMC into a powerhouse with shows like “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead.” It was that background in growing smaller outlets (he’s the first exec in several years to take over a network without broadcast experience) that made him a leading candidate to reinvent Fox’s identity as a leaner, meaner operation.

But when Collier joined the company last November, it was a time of serious internal uncertainty. The Walt Disney Co.’s $71 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox’s entertainment assets hadn’t yet closed, which meant outgoing Fox Television Group co-chairmen and CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman were still there, and it wasn’t clear when Walden would officially be moving over to Disney to take over its TV operations — or who might join her.

“If you look at what was happening in the world when I got here, it was a moment of great ambiguity,” Collier says. “I have nothing but good things to say about the people who navigated the uncertainty for a long period of time.”

Meanwhile, there was rampant speculation in the industry that without a studio sibling, Fox would focus more on live events and sports — including “Thursday Night Football,” which the company snagged ahead of the 2018 season for a reported $3 billion over five years.

But from the moment he started talking to Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch and COO John Nallen about the job, Collier says he had an assurance that the network was still committed to scripted fare. 

Murdoch tells Variety he’s pleased with the results so far, calling Collier a “smart and strategic leader.” “Since day one, he introduced a refreshing approach while emphasizing the intrinsic value of having a broadcast network at our core,” he notes. “It is great to see his efforts yielding positive results so soon.”

When Fox launched in 1986, it was barely a channel — more like a hodgepodge group of mostly UHF stations with signals so weak that NBC programming legend Brandon Tartikoff dismissed it as the “coat-hanger network.” But over time, Fox built a reputation for edgy fare like “Married … With Children” and “The Simpsons,” and the ratings followed. Even after its landmark NFL deal in 1994 helped solidify Fox as one of the major networks, its reputation as being TV’s younger, more iconoclastic broadcaster remained. (Remember “Joe Millionaire”?)

In joining Fox, Collier says he’s leaning into those early days when the network was considered more irreverent. He points, with admiration, to audacious elements like Fox’s infamous early-’90s marketing campaign for “Melrose Place,” which teased, “Mondays are a bitch,” and the slogan Fox Sports used when it landed the NFL: “Same Game, New Attitude.”

“You go back through the history of Fox, the way the boldness of the brand has allowed it to not just take swings, but when they hit have them hit a little louder,” Collier says. “‘American Idol,’ ‘In Living Color,’ ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘House.’ I think certainly in ‘Prodigal Son,’ that’s an unusual family drama. It’s a very Fox relationship,” he adds, referring to the show’s conceit: a homicide investigator who relies on his father, a noted serial killer, for advice. 

“Bless the Harts” is part of a new crop of animated series that Collier is using to reestablish the network’s brazen Animation Domination brand. “Charlie’s enthusiasm for the real work — not just buying things and canceling things but growing them and shaping them — is what makes it a pleasure to create with him,” says executive producer Chris Miller.

Then there’s the success of “The Masked Singer,” which premiered in January and became a hit — and a big win for Collier, so early in his tenure. The celebrities-in-disguise singing competition has a concept reminiscent of those wild Fox shows from the early reality-TV boom; now in its second cycle, the show continues to rank as TV’s No. 1 entertainment program. “The entire organization prioritized that launch and then the return of it,” Collier says.

One of the first moves he made as CEO was a rebrand of the company, starting with its name: “Fox Broadcasting Co.,” the network’s official title going back to its 1986 launch, was retired in favor of “Fox Entertainment.” Collier then went into acquisition mode, launching SideCar with Berman and purchasing Bento Box, the animation studio behind Fox’s hit series “Bob’s Burgers.”

“I want to make sure our animation future is unquestioned,” Collier says. “You start to look for animation capabilities that could create a production infrastructure and some access to that space, so we bought Bento Box.”

Collier and Wade also launched Fox Alternative Entertainment as an in-house unscripted unit, which took over production of “The Masked Singer” in its second season. “We’re reinventing ourselves,” Wade says. “And to walk in the door every morning with that mandate from Charlie is exciting.”

Collier notes that Fox now has production capabilities for live-action series, reality TV and animation, but without the overhead of a major studio. “All of a sudden, we sold $71 billion worth of assets, but our capabilities are really meaningful against all the areas where we compete,” he says.

The exec credits some of his early quick moves to Murdoch, with whom he speaks frequently, about both the network and the state of the industry in general. “It’s been remarkable what a fast partnership it was,” he says. “It’s not easy to acquire a company. The fact that Bento Box was so strategic, that they moved so quickly — it is not an urban legend that [Fox Corp.] makes fast, bold decisions.”

To fill out his team, Collier hired Sony TV exec Amy Carney to serve as Fox Entertainment’s chief operating officer, a job that previously hadn’t existed, as well as TV veteran Julia Franz to run comedy. He also created the network’s first-ever head of animation, recruiting Adult Swim alum Daniel Weidenfeld. 

Says “Bless the Harts” executive producer Phil Lord: “Their focus on animation development is heartening for the next generation, which is more diverse, more daring and more vital than ever.”  

Of course, there have been bumps along the way. Although Fox’s “BH90210” series opened well, that early buzz couldn’t sustain. (Collier says he’s proud of the effort and doesn’t rule out another season, although he says another round would have to be “meaningful and hefty.”) And he’s still having to answer questions about Fox News’ pro-Trump bent and how its unpopularity with Hollywood talent is impacting the entertainment side. “Fox News is 3,000 miles away,” he says. “People come to us for Fox Sports; that’s on our air. People come to us for Fox Entertainment; that’s on our air. And most of what you’re asking about is nowhere near our air.”

The hardest step early on, however, was the race to develop a new business template with studios on the eve of this year’s upfronts. Collier found himself under the gun to come up with a co-ownership model for shows developed at the network as pilot season got underway last winter. Fox Entertainment has now sealed deals with most suppliers, giving the network a stake in future projects — but also causing some grumbling among studios. “Hopefully they’ll say ‘tough but fair,’” Collier says of the deals. “I think there’s tremendous value in our real estate.”

Collier and Thorn note that they have several projects in development from multiple studios, and one in particular that they count as a victory: “Carla,” a comedy from Warner Bros. TV and Jim Parsons, based on a U.K. format and set to star Mayim Bialik. 

“That says a lot about what our comedy brand is going to be, and how we’re going to invest and how we’re going to compete,” Collier says. “It’s been wonderful, more quickly than I expected, to have that level of talent come in here and want to bring their big broadcast projects.”

Fox has also dipped its toes in the overall-deals business, sealing a pact with “Criminal Minds” originator Jeff Davis. “I felt we needed to have relationships with creators who understand the value of network television,” Collier says. 

Upcoming on the network’s docket: The midseason animated series “Duncanville,” from Amy Poehler and also produced by Bento Box; “9-1-1”
spinoff “9-1-1: Lone Star”; AI-centric thriller “Next”; and the six-episode live-action holiday comedy series “The Moodys,” from Denis Leary, set to air in December. 

Thorn says Fox has “no choice but to be scrappy in this marketplace,” and that in a vertically integrated world, the network may have a leg up as an indie. While studios may fear competing with in-house series at other networks, that’s less of an issue for shows in development at Fox. 

With those early autumn wins, Collier has another big windfall to look forward to: Super Bowl LIV, which he’ll use on Feb. 2 to launch a third edition of “The Masked Singer” and promote Fox’s midseason lineup.

“We’re having a run where the thesis is being proven out, which is the combination of the best in sports with entertainment can stand side by side,” Collier says. “Knock wood, it’s working pretty well right now.” 

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